Admit it. At one point in our lives, you, me, and each and every competing triathlete -- from veteran pros to near novices -- thought the idea impossible, even ridiculous: 140.6 miles, an Ironman Triathlon.
What do you need to know to finish an Ironman?
When athletes ask, this is what I tell them.
I've completed 29 Ironman Triathlons. My experience at each one has been spectacular in one way or another, whether I finished with a 10:12 PR in Lake Placid, or suffered through to a 13+ hour finish in California. Each race broadens you in ways you can't anticipate. You're just out there, and it happens. Magic.
But at the same time, you're out there to finish. When I prepared for my first Ironman, I was more than a bit apprehensive about the magnitude of the challenge. I asked as many triathlon veterans for advice, and what they shared was invaluable in helping me finish my first Ironman in Canada. Since then, I've been more than happy to do the same for Ironman rookies, or those who want to race Ironman better, for years.
Planning Race Nutrition
Planning your hydration and nutrition needs for an Ironman can be tricky. Too much and you’ll feel sick, too little and you’ll bonk. It took me many races of trial and error to find the right mix. What I ended up with may be a formula that can be applied to your needs, though the specific ingredients might change.
After many races, I found that about 2500 to 3000 calories was my optimal calorie count on the bike. Simply, that translates to about 250 calories every 10 miles on the bike. This amount not only keeps me fueled for the bike, but also prepares me for the run. So that is my target. Practice caloric intake on your long training rides to find the level right for you.
In terms of how to get those calories, here’s what I came up with:
* 800 calories GU: eight packets, 100 calories each, Plain is the preferred flavor
* 920 calories PowerBars: four chocolate PowerBars
* 300 calories bananas: grab six bananas at aid stations
* 750 calories Gatorade: take at least five bottles of Gatorade, one every other aid station, 6 x 125 calories
Race Morning: Final Preparations
My race morning routine is simple and it took me less than 10 minutes before Ironman Arizona this year.
* Tape GU to aerobars, four on each side
* Place four PowerBars in Profile-Design velcro pouch on the top of my Softride beam
* Put the plastic (35mm film) container in the pouch
* Insert one water bottle in bottle cage (with regular aid stations, I see no reason to carry more)
* Check the tires
* Put White Lightning on the chain
* Set the bike computer distance and time setting to zero
* Go to transition area and make sure at least helmet, bike shoes, bib number and running shoes are in the bags. That’s the minimum you need, if you forgot anything.
After that, relax, breathe deep and look forward to a fun day of endurance. Now all you have to do is travel 140.6 miles. Again, don’t worry. Plenty of time - you’ve got 17 hours to do it.
In my experience, not too much can go terribly wrong in the swim. You get through it, either quickly or not. How fast you go depends on your training.
How much physical contact you endure depends on where you start. I’ve tried starting everywhere: at the rear, up front, inside on the ‘line’, outside. There will be contact no matter where you start, but I’ve found somewhere in the middle, on the outside to be best.
Someone will inadvertently kick you. You will accidentally bump into someone else. It may feel violent, but no one wants to hurt anyone. Do not take it personally. Know that the person who almost knocked your goggles off really wished that didn’t happen, sorry. Relax.
If you start at the rear and you’re willing to wait about 30 seconds after the cannon goes off, it can be a fairly breezy swim. The benefit is a complete draft of all swimmers in front of you; the downside may be that you need to navigate around many people.
Most of the time, I hope to start on the side, near the front, with the hope that it will not be congested. Except that about 500 others seem to have the same idea. So the sides tend to be pretty densely packed.
For the rookie who’s not an expert swimmer, relax at the swim start, let others start ahead of you, and do your best to swim in a straight line. If you lose five or ten minutes on a slow swim, you can make it up on the bike or run.
For the rookies who are fast swimmers, I envy you. Go to the front, swim well, and enjoy being in front of most of the athletes for a while. Say hi to me when I pass you on the bike.
Swim to Bike Transition
I am usually disoriented coming out of the water. It’s not easy to immediately adjust to land after more than an hour bobbing and weaving through the water. Take your time exiting the water and begin heading to the transition area. Volunteers may be there to help remove your wetsuit. After that, other volunteers may help you find your transition bag. Thank them for helping you.
Find a seat, put on your helmet, bib number, socks and shoes. Make sure debris is off your feet first, because you may choose to run in those socks later. Decide if you want to take arm warmers. My advice: when in doubt, be comfortable. I usually wear arm warmers on the bike, knowing I might discard them later. And I’m usually glad I have them.
Get sunscreen before you head out to get your bike. Volunteers will slather it on you in fifteen seconds. Skip that step, and you will be explaining strange sunburn patterns to your family later.
For me, the first few hours on the bike are perhaps the most enjoyable part of the Ironman. You feel fresh, you feel fast, people are in good moods. And then there’s the scenery. Every course has wonderful scenery, in its own way. In Arizona, the bike course took us toward the McDowell mountain range through mostly desert. I loved approaching the mountains, even if it was through a terminally unpredictable headwind.
Can something go wrong on your bike ride, the one for which you prepared so diligently? Sure. Be prepared for it, not afraid. Something different seems to happen to me in every race. I’ve had flat tires in Austria and in the US. I’ve had contact lenses fly out of my eyes on the bike in Canada and in Germany. More than once I’ve pulled my bike out of transition, only to see 1000 calories of nutrition fly off the bike onto the street (I’ve learned a thing or two about securing nutrition in place as a result).
The point is, expect the unexpected, and embrace it as part of the Ironman experience. Being an Ironman is about overcoming obstacles. Unexpected problems included.
I saw several people on the side of the road on the Ironman Arizona bike course with flat tires or some other bike mechanical problem. More than a few of them had looks of deep despair, head in hands. They were looks of shattered dreams. And at the moment, they may have been. But there are other chances, other races. I’ve done enough races to know that a single race is never the definitive one. Do what you can to get back on the course, and finish.
If you get a flat tire, try to change it. I flew all the way to Austria, in hope of a fast race in 2001, only to flat on the first loop. I lost 10 minutes changing the flat and that wasn’t too bad.
If you need to wait for race support for help, it could take a long time. If that happens, don’t get upset, just change your goal. A friend waited 45 minutes for assistance at Ironman Idaho, after which he found himself almost completely at the rear of all athletes. So he changed the challenge. He would now try to see how many people he could pass for the remainder of the bike ride. He must have passed more than 1000 people, and was satisfied with that.
Executing the bike nutrition plan is about as simple as putting it together. Remember, your exact nutrition may vary, but the concept is the same - balanced calorie input throughout your ride. Here’s the timing. Simple.
· GU: Take a GU sometime within every 10 mile segment. That gets you to 80 miles. Easy to remember, each time you see a mile marker with a zero, eat a GU.
· PowerBar: Eat a PowerBar within every 25 mile segment. Yes, this overlaps with GU somewhat, but that’s not a problem. I usually eat them between miles 15 and 20, 40 and 45, and 65 and 70. The last one depends on how I’m feeling late in the ride.
· Gatorade: it’s essential to always have one with you on the bike. Grab one each aid station and put it in a bottle cage.
· Water: I also grab a water bottle, but try to swig half of it then toss it by the end of the aid station. With aid stations every 10 miles, I can’t come up with a reason to carry more than one bottle.
· Bananas: it’s unpredictable which aid stations will have them, so I grab one each time I see it. Some races do not have bananas, and you might have to substitute. Just make sure you grab those 300 calories somewhere.
· Salt/Ibuprofen: I took a salt tablet and an ibuprofen tablet every 30 miles. Read directions to make sure your ibuprofen dose is appropriate.
I don’t use special needs bags on the bike or run. I decided long ago it’s not worth the hassle. Everything I need is on the bike or at aid stations. I think the same is true for most athletes. Not to mention my experience is that getting your bag in a timely manner tends to be a challenge, and most of the time what you included in the bag is not appealing when you actually get it.
Bike To Run Transition
By the time you finish the bike, you’re feeling ready to run. At least mentally. Reality will set in when you hop off the bike, give it to a waiting volunteer, and begin to head towards transition. Those first few steps after 112 miles are quite a surprise. You feel like you almost can’t move forward. Your first thought may be: I don’t think I can 26.2 miles now.
Rest assured that in about 30 seconds, you’ll feel better. Keep running, pick up your bag, and get to the change tent. By the time you get your running shoes and hat on, you’ll feel surprisingly ready to run. Get more sunscreen, acknowledge the cheers of the spectators on the railing, and head out onto the run course.
In the same way you might get a flat tire on the run, you may physically flat on the run. Cramps, bad patches, tough times. For the Ironman rookie, this might be the longest continuous timeframe you’ve ever moved your body forward. It may want to give out soon. But know that sometimes it can get better after it gets worse. Keep moving forward, keep hydrating and drinking.
Most aid stations, usually only one mile apart, have water, cola, Gatorade, chicken broth, oranges, bananas, pretzels, GU and ice. Train with these, and you’ll need nothing more on race day.
The run hydration/nutrition plan is even simpler than on the bike, because you don’t need to carry anything. I’ve worked out similar ‘rules’ for consistency, including:
· Two cups of cola with ice at least every other aid station. Cola provides sugar, caffeine and sodium. That’s about 50 calories x 13 = 650 calories
· If bearable, GU every four miles. That’s about 600 calories if you get them all.
· When the chicken broth is available, take it. It’s Go Juice. High levels of sodium will make you feel better, guaranteed. Though the mix of cola and broth in your stomach might not feel the best.
At Ironman Arizona, because of the very dry air, I found myself needing to have cola at every aid station. Do what you need to do. The only thing to avoid is getting behind on your hydration or nutrition. Try to keep up.
And run as the best you can, at least at a pace that you can sustain for a few hours. If you need to walk a hill or two, do it. Walk the aid stations. Keep moving forward. Nothing will keep you from your Ironman finish. It’s just a matter of time now.
You’ve trained all year to get there. You’ve raced all day to get there. Enjoy the moments in the final meters of the finish line chute. Let others enjoy their moment, too. Don’t race someone to the finish line, unless you think a Kona slot is on the line. Let the racer in front of you get a finish line photo to cherish. Then go get your own.
Cross the line, smile for the camera, and consider yourself a member of the club. You are an Ironman.